(updated below – Update II – Update III)
This Rasmussen Reports poll — the first to survey American public opinion specifically regarding the Israeli attack on Gaza — strongly bolsters the severe disconnect I documented the other day between (a) American public opinion on U.S. policy towards Israel and (b) the consensus views expressed by America’s political leadership. Not only does Rasmussen find that Americans generally “are closely divided over whether the Jewish state should be taking military action against militants in the Gaza Strip” (44-41%, with 15% undecided), but Democratic voters overwhelmingly oppose the Israeli offensive — by a 24-point margin (31-55%). By stark constrast, Republicans, as one would expect (in light of their history of supporting virtually any proposed attack on Arabs and Muslims), overwhelmingly support the Israeli bombing campaign (62-27%).
It’s not at all surprising, then, that Republican leaders — from Dick Cheney and John Bolton to virtually all appendages of the right-wing noise machine, from talk radio and Fox News to right-wing blogs and neoconservative journals — are unquestioning supporters of the Israeli attack. After all, they’re expressing the core ideology of the overwhelming majority of their voters and audience.
Much more notable is the fact that Democratic Party leaders — including Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi — are just as lockstep in their blind, uncritical support for the Israeli attack, in their absolute refusal to utter a word of criticism of, or even reservations about, Israeli actions. While some Democratic politicians who are marginalized by the party’s leadership are willing to express the views which Democratic voters overwhelmingly embrace, the suffocating, fully bipartisan orthodoxy which typically predominates in America when it comes to Israel — thou shalt not speak ill of Israel, thou shalt support all actions it takes — is in full force with this latest conflict.
Is there any other significant issue in American political life, besides Israel, where (a) citizens split almost evenly in their views, yet (b) the leaders of both parties adopt identical lockstep positions which leave half of the citizenry with no real voice? More notably still, is there any other position, besides Israel, where (a) a party’s voters overwhelmingly embrace one position (Israel should not have attacked Gaza) but (b) that party’s leadership unanimously embraces the exact opposite position (Israel was absolutely right to attack Gaza and the U.S. must support Israel unequivocally)? Does that happen with any other issue?
Equally noteworthy is that the factional breakdown regarding Israel-Gaza mirrors quite closely the factional alliances that arose with regard to the Iraq War. Just as was true with Iraq, one finds vigorous pro-war sentiment among the Dick Cheney/National Review/neoconservative/hard-core-GOP crowd, joined (as was true for Iraq) by some American liberals who typically oppose that faction yet eagerly join with them when it comes to Israel. Meanwhile, most of the rest of the world — Europe, South America, Asia, the Middle East, the U.N. leadership — opposes and condemns the attack, all to no avail. The parties with the superior military might (the U.S. and Israel) dismiss world opinion as essentially irrelevant. Even the pro-war rhetorical tactics are the same (just as those who opposed the Iraq War were demonized as being “pro-Saddam,” those who oppose the Israeli attack on Gaza are now “pro-Hamas”).
Substantively, there are certainly meaningful differences between the U.S. attack on Iraq and the Israeli attack on Gaza (most notably the fact that Hamas really does shoot rockets into Israel and has killed Israeli civilians and Israel really is blockading and occupying Palestinian land, whereas Iraq did not attack and could not attack the U.S. as the U.S. was sanctioning them and controlling their airspace). But the underlying logic of both wars are far more similar than different: military attacks, invasions and occupations will end rather than exacerbate terrorism; the Muslim world only understands brute force; the root causes of the disputes are irrelevant; diplomacy and the U.N. are largely worthless. It’s therefore entirely unsurprising that the sides split along the same general lines. What’s actually somewhat remarkable is that there is even more lockstep consensus among America’s political leadership supporting the Israeli attack on Gaza than there was supporting the U.S.’s own attack on Iraq (at least a few Democratic Congressional leaders opposed the war on Iraq, unlike for Israel’s bombing of Gaza, where they virtually all unequivocally support it).
* * * * *
Ultimately, what is most notable about the “debate” in the U.S. over Israel-Gaza is that virtually all of it occurs from the perspective of Israeli interests but almost none of it is conducted from the perspective of American interests. There is endless debate over whether Israel’s security is enhanced or undermined by the attack on Gaza and whether the 40-year-old Israeli occupation, expanding West Bank settlements and recent devastating blockade or Hamas militancy and attacks on Israeli civilians bear more of the blame. American opinion-making elites march forward to opine on the historical rights and wrongs of the endless Israeli-Palestinian territorial conflict with such fervor and fixation that it’s often easy to forget that the U.S. is not actually a direct party to this dispute.
Though the ins-and-outs of Israeli grievances and strategic considerations are endlessly examined, there is virtually no debate over whether the U.S. should continue to play such an active, one-sided role in this dispute. It’s the American taxpayer, with their incredibly consequential yet never-debated multi-billion-dollar aid packages to Israel, who are vital in funding this costly Israeli assault on Gaza. Just as was true for Israel’s bombing of Lebanon, it’s American bombs that — with the whole world watching — are blowing up children and mosques, along with Hamas militants, in Gaza. And it’s the American veto power that, time and again, blocks any U.N. action to stop these wars.
For those reasons, the pervasive opposition and anger around the world from the Israeli assault on Gaza is not only directed to Israel but — quite rationally and understandably — to America as well. Virtually the entire world, other than large segments of the American public, see Israeli actions as American actions. The attack on Gaza thus harms not only Israel’s reputation and credibility, but America’s reputation and credibility as well.
And for what? Even for those Americans who, for whatever their reasons, want endlessly to fixate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, who care deeply and passionately about whether the Israelis or the Palestinians control this or that West Bank hill or village and want to spend the rest of their days arguing about who did what to whom in 1948 and 1967, what possible interests do Americans generally have in any of that, sufficient to involve ourselves so directly and vigorously on one side, and thereby subject ourselves to the significant costs — financial, reputational, diplomatic and security — from doing so?
It’s one thing to argue that Israel is being both wise and just by bombing the densely populated Gaza Strip. It’s another thing entirely to argue that the U.S. should use all of its resources to support Israel as it does so. Those are two entirely separate questions. Arguments insisting that the Gaza attack is good and right for Israel don’t mean that they are good and right for the U.S. Yet unstinting, unquestioning American support for whatever Israel does is just tacitly assumed in most of these discussions. The core assumption is that if it can be established that this is the right thing for Israel to do, then it must be the right thing for the U.S. to support it. The notion that the two countries may have separate interests — that this may be good for Israel to do but not for the U.S. to support — is the one issue that, above all else, may never be examined.
The “change” that many anticipate (or, more accurately, hope) that Obama will bring about is often invoked as a substance-free mantra, a feel-good political slogan. But to the extent it means anything specific, at the very least it has to entail that there will be a substantial shift in how America is perceived in the world, the role that we in fact play, the civil-liberties-erosions and militarized culture that inevitably arise from endlessly involving ourselves in numerous, hate-fueled military conflicts around the world. Our blind support for Israel, our eagerness to make all of its disputes our own disputes, our refusal to acknowledge any divergence of interests between us and that other country, our active impeding rather than facilitating of diplomatic resolutions between it and its neighbors are major impediments to any meaningful progress in those areas.
UPDATE: One related point: I have little appreciation for those who believe, one way or the other, that they can reliably predict what Obama is going to do — either on this issue or others. That requires a clairvoyance which I believe people lack.
Some argue that Obama has filled key positions with politicians who have a history of virtually absolute support for Israeli actions — Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Rahm Emanuel — because Obama intends to continue, more or less, the Bush policy of blind support for Israel. Others argue the opposite: that those appointments are necessary to vest the Obama administration with the credibility to take a more active role in pushing the Israelis to a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians, and that in particular, Clinton would not have left her Senate seat unless she believed she could finish Bill Clinton’s work and obtain for herself the legacy-building accomplishment of forging an agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians (this morning’s NYT hints at that scenario).
I personally find the latter theory marginally more persuasive, but there is simply no way to know until Obama is inaugurated. Whatever else is true, the more domestic political pressure is exerted demanding that the U.S. play a more even-handed and constructive role in facilitating a diplomatic resolution, the more likely it is that this will happen.
UPDATE II: Donna Edwards, the newly elected, netroots-supported Democratic Congresswoman from Maryland, who removed the standard establishment Democratic incumbent Al Wynn from office this year, has the following to say about Israel/Gaza:
I am deeply disturbed by this week’s escalation of hostilities in the Gaza Strip, as I have been by the ongoing rocket fire into southern Israel. To support Israel and to ease the humanitarian crisis facing the people of Gaza, the United States must work actively for an immediate ceasefire that ends the violence, stops the rockets, and removes the blockade of Gaza.
That’s much further than most national Democrats have been willing to go. And it illustrates that primary challenges can — slowly but meaningfully — change the face of the Democratic Party.
UPDATE III: An abridged version of this post was published in today’s Chicago Sun-Times, here.